The two-storey school building and deserted courtyard sparkled white in the Bengal mid-day sun. Suddenly from one of its entrances emerged a bespectacled figure, his kurta and pyjama also pristine white. With arms outstretched, he beamed from ear to ear and introduced himself as the headmaster. His pupils, he explained, had already gone home. With solicitous enthusiasm he ushered my two companions and me into a large, empty room at the far end of which stood a solitary desk and chair. Three additional chairs appeared without any apparent prompting and were placed in a row before the desk. Three glasses of lemonade made a similar mysterious appearance. Our generous host assumed his position on the other side of the desk, moved the paraphernalia on it about until it was apparently where he wanted it, polished his spectacles, rolled his eyes to the heavens, fixed me with an extraordinarily intense gaze, and began: The educational situation in Bengal was “most unsatisfactory”.
At this point I made the mistake of venturing to suggest that I had always thought of Bengal as having a very high proportion of India’s poets and intellectuals. For the next forty minutes his dark brown eyes never shifted their focus from mine. Verbally he roamed purposefully from ancient Greece to the British Isles to the Bay of Bengal, taking in along his way Socrates, Jesus Christ, the Buddha, the Vedanta, Rabindranath Tagore, Shakespeare and Her Majesty the Queen. The unifying factor in this impressive monologue was love and duty and their expression. The room was humid. In the shadow of the headmaster’s desk insects were biting my bare ankles. Still subject to his unrelenting gaze, I tried surreptitiously to apply repellent to my legs and as I bent to do so, became aware that the room had silently filled up behind me with row upon row of chairs on which sat some one hundred schoolmasters. Startled, I turned to have a closer look, whereupon all, without exception, nodded and smiled.
The headmaster came to the climax of his speech: I and my companions had made a journey – an Odyssey no less – all the way from Europe to his school to see the work he and his staff were doing. What an act of love that was! Embarrassed by his effusiveness, my companions and I wondered what kind of response was expected of us. We need not have worried, for like something out of “Alice through the Looking Glass” the room had emptied of its nodding, smiling occupants as silently and swiftly as it had filled. We were once again alone with our host, who ushered us back to the school gates, pumped my hand and informed us: “I shall sleep happily tonight. I shall think of this day filled with love when I am in bed. What a gift!”
At the time it was all my companions and I could do to contain our nervous laughter at this surreal experience, but with the passage of the months I have come to realise that it was indeed a gift, for I never think about it without a chuckle, a raising of my spirits and a warm glow of affection for that kind and learned soul; and I think about it often.